Housed in a gorgeous, Art Deco-esque cover - and full of similarly vintage-inflected illustrations and design flourishes - Perfume sets up its stall with a few, compelling introductory chapters, before revealing its star attractions: the reviews. More than 700 of them, in fact. Helpfully organised by fragrance family, they are almost exclusively of the ‘thumbs up’ variety (as is normal in publications of this nature) and they range from brief one-liners to more narrative-style, autobiographical ruminations spanning half a page. The families included go from the obligatory (rose, leathers chypre et al) to the less common (tea, frangipani) and the downright idiosyncratic (coffee, yuzu, “anti-perfume”).
The fragrance selection reflects Neil’s love of classical perfumery (a few discontinued gems have rightly made the final cut) as well as his appreciation of modern aesthetics and his embrace of any composition that at least attempts some measure of originality. It also includes a few Creeds and - mon dieu - appears to have no room for Habit Rouge or Nahema. But I guess even the Black Narcissus ain’t perfect.
However, none of this tells you why the book is special. There is something about the way Neil handles sentences - the way he balances them, makes them longer and longer, embellishes them with evocative vocab, peppers them with sly colloquialisms, interjections and repetitions, stretches them to their grammatical limits, twists them back on themselves - that comes across as sincerely and nakedly emotional. That is this book’s most notable feature: an infectious, life-loving, inquisitive, intelligent and contact-seeking emotionality.
To be sure, there are other superb perfume books out there. Some impress with their scientific knowledge of the art. Others provide important accounts of significant industry developments. A few offer fascinating analyses of the socio-cultural contexts that led to the creation of key scents. But I’d say Neil’s book is the first we’ve had for a long time that gives voice to a heartfelt - and almost palpable - love of perfume. Yes, his tome is a testament to his knowledge and research; that mustn’t be downplayed. But more than anything else, it is also gloriously enjoyable. And at a time when much perfume writing is either ‘bought’ (ie blindly positive and therefore worthless) or relentlessly po-faced, that is a quality worth praising. And celebrating.
[Review based on a copy provided by Hardie Grant in 2019. In the UK, the book is released on 21st March. Click here to order it on Amazon.]
PS Please don't forget to tune in to today's special, Dior-focussed episode of Love At First Scent on my YouTube channel at 6 pm UK time (2 pm New York; 10 pm Dubai).